In search of ‘British values’

So Mr Gove, are these the ‘British values’ we should sign up to, on the front cover of the Spectator?

The 'Trojan Horse' inquiry has encouraged use of anti-Muslim stereotypes in British media [Getty Image]

After weeks of speculation and leaks in the British press, we finally heard from Ofsted and its damning verdict on the whole “Trojan Horse” affair in Birmingham. At the same time, as the findings were being reported, parts of the British media began to swarm around like vultures, ready to capitalise on a golden opportunity to escalate the tension and create a further “us versus them” divide.

The Spectator, one of the oldest published magazines in Britain, epitomised the pervading hysteria with a cartoon of a Muslim child with a sword in one hand and a Quran in the other, and the accompanying words: “Taught to Hate.” The image is loaded with lazy assumptions, generalisations and stereotypes that depict Muslim children as being extremists and radicals.

In the House of Commons, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove had talked about instilling British values “at the heart of what every school has to deliver for children”. Perhaps he should also call the editor of the Spectator and ask him whether he knows the difference between British values and poor journalism? The provocative cartoon has been successful at stigmatising an entire community and is itself “extreme” by targeting the very children in Birmingham that Ofsted and Gove said were vulnerable.

Stereotyping Muslim children

This is not the first time the Spectator has stirred controversy. In January, its front cover was of a cartoon of two bearded Muslim men wielding a sword and a rifle. This time, the picture was portraying the global battle between Sunni and Shia Muslim communities. Unfortunately, it also revealed further negative stereotypes that were rooted in the way in which the cartoon had portrayed hook-nosed, Arab men wielding dangerous weapons.

On its website, the magazine states: “There is no party line to which our writers are bound – originality of thought and elegance of expression are the sole editorial constraints.” However, it is that “level of elegance of expression” that most people find to be offensive with respect to this cartoon.

Listening Post – Is the British media Islamophobic?

The editor, Fraser Nelson, was quick to justify his decision on social media by adding that “could it be that most people recognise that attacking extremists for ‘betraying British Muslims’ is not being anti-Muslim?”

The problem, however, for many Muslims is the way in which the image conflates extremism, radicalisation and Muslim children.

And the Spectator is not alone in its biased and prejudicial reporting on the matter. These stereotypes were firmly rooted in the wake of the Oklahoma City blast when days after the bombing, the New York Post published an editorial cartoon showing the Statue of Liberty under siege. This time, the image was of three bearded, presumably Muslim men, smiling as they burnt the US flag. The story was loaded with accusations and innuendo that portrayed Muslims as being involved, despite the absence of facts. In the centre was Emma Lazarus’ modified poem: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, your terrorists, your slime, your evil cowards, your religious fanatics …”

The New York Post editorial also made further sweeping generalisations by adding: “Knowing that the car bomb indicates Middle Eastern terrorists at work, it’s safe to assume that their goal is to promote fear …. In due course, we’ll learn which particular faction the terrorists identified with – Hamas? Hezbollah? The Islamic Jihad? – and whether or not the perpetrators leveled specific demands.” 

Clearly, Muslims have suffered from poor media stories that have often left out key facts within a story or have used cartoons to sensationalise and stereotype Muslims as being dangerous jihadists.

Let’s not forget, for example, the story from 2010, when windows at a Black Country leisure centre were being covered up, because according to most newspapers, it was at the request of Muslim women who did not want people seeing them swimming. This apparently was because all Muslim women had demanded the windows be blacked out. It later emerged that was not exactly the case when the council revealed that the requests to black out the windows had not come solely from the Muslim community. Not a surprise then at the Daily Mail headline: “Swimmers plunged into dark after council covers swimming pool windows to protect Muslim women’s modesty”.

Similar headlines in a number of right-wing newspapers have often used this opportunity to exacerbate perceptions of Muslim communities as being the “other”. 

Fairness and objectivity

The whole “Trojan Horse” affair has been a very emotive subject especially because the media spotlight has been firmly on Muslim children. For this reason, the British media had to be more responsible, objective and proportionate in its handling of stories. My joint study looking at media portrayal of Muslims has found that such reporting and misrepresentation of British Muslims also helps create the framework for the “othering” of communities and in particular, may influence people’s perceptions of Muslims.

Inside Story – Extremism in British schools?

Previous studies on the media coverage of Muslims, in particular post 9/11, show that news stories have often stereotyped Muslims in a negative light. These stories are often used in the prism of counter-terrorism and depict Muslims in an overtly negative fashion and are a product of a wider anti-Muslim prejudice.

So I would like to say to the editor of the Spectator, I find this image both offensive and inflammatory, filled with bigotry and a tinge of Islamophobia. Let’s be clear: People have a right to freedom of expression as this is an integral part of British values. However, when you create a cartoon of this nature, then you have clearly missed the point. The story no longer matters and what it does is to label all Muslims as extremists. The cartoon does not attempt to make any distinction between terrorist, child and Muslim. This negativity is framed within the construct that all Muslim children at the centre of this storm have been brainwashed and are now dangerous extremists in society.  

In such times, the role of the media is crucial in projecting a balanced and nuanced approach, and not one that makes lazy assumptions between Islam and terrorism or seeks to make profit from sensationalised headlines in order to cause controversy and create  a bias, distortion and negativity in the way they report stories concerning Muslims.

Whatever you think of the “Trojan Horse” affair, I think most people agree that they would find this cartoon offensive and pandering to stereotypes. The danger is that this type of image can have a profound impact on how people understand – or indeed misunderstand – Islam.

So as we begin to get ready for the next official “Trojan Horse” report, I hope the Spectator heeds people’s concerns and provides a more balanced front cover, one that appreciates sensitivities around extremism and terrorism. Isn’t that what British values are about?

Imran Awan is a senior lecturer in criminology at the Centre for Applied Criminology, Birmingham City University. His latest, book ‘Extremism, Counter-Terrorism and Policing’ is published by Ashgate (2013).